U.S. Natural Gas Exports Could Change Market

Some members of Congress continue to push for increased exports of liquefied natural gas, trying to make a simplified narrative out of complex market factors.

Before the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine dominated the headlines in recent months and shook up forecasts for the European natural gas market, the motive for U.S. exports of natural gas fracked from shale formations such as in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas was clear: the high price of LNG in Asia. In January, spot prices in Asia were about $20 per thousand cubic feet, which represented significant money to be made for exporters. But in the past six months, spot prices in Asia dropped dramatically to about $10, underscoring the uncertainty and complexity of the global gas market.

Before committing billions of dollars to U.S. export projects conditionally approved by the Energy Department, companies have several years ahead to watch the global market and geopolitical complexities that will come into play.

It costs between $6 and $7 per thousand cubic feet to liquefy, ship and regasify natural gas, meaning exporters of U.S. gas priced at $4 or $5 need Asian prices to be $10 to $12 to be profitable.

“Spot prices have come down pretty dramatically but oil-linked contract prices are still in the $15 to $16 area,” said Mikkal E. Herberg, research director of the National Bureau of Asian Research who worked for ARCO for 20 years. “I think it all looks pretty promising still,” he said Monday.

Asian countries have made a policy of diversifying from a dependence on $16 to $18 oil-linked contracts and are eager to increase imports of LNG, he said. The United States has not been alone in its push toward increasing LNG exports. In May, ExxonMobil began shipping from a liquefaction facility in Papua New Guinea, and Australia has dramatically increased supply, with 70 million metric tons of LNG capacity — a fifth of the current global capacity — expected to come on line in the next several year, Bloomberg News reported last week.

“You’re going to have a lot of new LNG hitting the market later in the decade, and that’s not unreasonable to think that that’s going to create enough supply to bring prices down in the region maybe towards that $13 level” where U.S. LNG profits could be minimized, Herberg said. Lower Asian prices would also squeeze supplies from Australia, where development overruns made projects vulnerable to lower margins.

The calculus for exports to closer ports in Europe is a little lower, where $11 gas could be profitable.

“The Europeans, generally speaking are looking to diversify their gas supply sources,” Herberg said, driven by disruptions in supplies because of unrest in Egypt and Libya and the United Kingdom shifting from being a gas exporter to an importer.

While Russia and Ukraine have grabbed headlines because of constraints on Russian supplies, U.S. imports would not be a quick fix for relaxing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s control because it is hard to move gas from Western Europe to markets in Bulgaria or Slovakia, Herberg said, pointing out that Europe’s LNG import facilities are only running at a third of capacity.

“You can’t get the gas from LNG terminals along Europe’s coast to those markets very easily because of the lack of infrastructure and market integration” in the near term, Herberg said.

But through its recent actions, Russia has galvanized Europe into upgrading its infrastructure so that U.S. or other LNG supplies could be moved and affect Eastern European markets in five to 10 years.

“They’ve provided enormous incentives for the future to accelerate that market integration and add those pipeline interconnections into the eastern half where they had such a dominate position in the market place,” Herberg said, though he expects U.S. gas would provide a market choice and not completely replace the Russian supply. “Over the long run, U.S. gas LNG supplies to Europe can play a role in diversifying European supply.”

The other half of the U.S. export equation will be domestic prices, which are less than $4 but were more than twice that before the shale boom. Many analysts including the Energy Information Agency expect the shale gas boom to last for decades, but disruptions to the supply, whether policy-driven or otherwise could increase prices. At $7 or $8 per unit, LNG exports would likely not be competitive, Herberg said.

“That’s the risk that you take,” he said. “It’s a high risk business.”

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